George Stroumboulopoulos and a parade of Canadian music stars put the artist-jock divide on ice

There’s something George Stroumboulopoulos wants to make clear about himself as a hockey player: “I suck. I’m terrible — I may be the worst player in the tournament.”

Despite his self-described lack of skills (he only started skating two years ago), the multiply pierced host of CBC’s The Hour, former MuchMusic sensation and ubiquitous poster boy gets giddy discussing his alternate life as a right winger, anticipating this weekend’s Exclaim! Hockey Summit of the Arts (or Exclaim! Cup for short) “When you get on the ice — personally, it’s the only time I don’t think about work. On the ice, I’m completely about the game. And you see that with lots of cats. It’s a release. A full-on release. And it’s one that’s healthy,” Stroumboulopoulos says. “It’s almost like everyone on the ice turns into a 12-year-old.”

Sitting across from the signed Saku Koivu jersey in his office at CBC headquarters on Front Street, it quickly becomes obvious that Stroumboulopoulos has been bitten by the hockey bug in a big way. Like most Canadian boys, he grew up playing street hockey and dreaming NHL dreams, then abandoned those dreams as he drifted to the musical side of the arts-or-sports high-school divide. But recently, in his early thirties. he’s fallen back in love with the game. There’s a lot of that going around. “Certainly I find that a lot of people I know totally fell out [of touch with hockey], and it’s totally because people didn’t want to play with the jocks,” he says. “But about two years ago, just leading up to the [NHL] lockout, for a lot of people there was a reconnection with the game. Certainly in the community that I have worked in. I worked in the music community, covering bands, and my whole life has been about bands on the road and all that. And then, suddenly, it became about hockey.”

Leading this charge to get rockers off the stage and onto the ice for the past eight years has been the Exclaim! Cup, a tournament featuring 30 teams made up largely of musicians, artists and media types.

As Stroumboulopoulos says, “You’re on the ice — or in the stands — and rooting around are some of the most creative, talented, interesting, inspiring people in this country. You can be on the ice at one time and have three of your favourite songs from the past five years — those guys and girls who wrote them are on the ice.”

The team lineups read like a CanCon A-list, filled with MuchMusic icons and indie idols: Tyler Stewart of Barenaked Ladies, Seán Cullen, Chris Murphy and Andrew Scott of Sloan, Luke Doucet, Andrew Cash, Dave Bidini and Tim Vesely of the Rheostatics, Jeremi Madsen of The Deadly Snakes, Sean Dean and Mike Belitsky of The Sadies and Greg Millson of Gentleman Reg’s band, just for a start.

The tournament began as a challenge game between The Morningstars (whose lineup includes members of the Rheostatics and Lowest of the Low as well as tournament founder Tom Goodwin of Exclaim! magazine) and the Sonic Unyon Pond Squad and has since grown into an unlikely highlight of Canada’s musical calendar.

“It’s bigger than Jesus. Easter used to be about scratchy church pants, now it’s about hockey. It’s big,” says Morningstars defenceman Dave Bidini (who is perhaps equally well-known as the rhythm guitarist for the Rheostatics). The Exclaim! Cup is so big that Bidini wrote a book, The Best Game You Can Name (see sidebar, this page), largely about his team and the tournament.

Bidini says part of what draws artsy types into the tournament, and through it back to hockey, is the Exclaim! Cup’s emphasis on fun over competition. “The whole sporting principle is flipped a bit … people seeing sports as play as opposed to a jock-driven competitiveness. One thing the Exclaim! Cup embraces is that kind of joy of play and the heart of the game and what sports means not in terms of winning and losing but in terms of heart — the joy of the game.”

Patti Schmidt, host of CBC Radio’s Brave New Waves, has played on the Montreal Ninja Tune Wicked Deadly Karate Chops for the past three years. She says the tournament is friendlier now than when it started out and she’d know: she served as referee for the inaugural game.

“I was told by [Exclaim!’s] Ian Danzig that it would be a very casual thing, it’s for charity, blah, blah, blah — don’t brush up too hard on the rules. And then it turned into this total macho, testosterone, beat-on-each-other game. It was shocking! I thought I would just show up and make up calls, you know — funny! Creative! No!”

Today, though, all agree that the emphasis is on a clean game and having fun. The tournament rules not only forbid contact and punish fighting with expulsion from the tournament, they also reward clean play. Teams are rewarded for getting no penalties and teams with too many penalty minutes are ineligible for the playoffs. As founder Tom Goodwin says, “The most important thing is bringing goodwill and the bottom line is we want to play fun and safe hockey.”

Bidini says that’s most evident in the least competitive division. “People who just started to play in the past two or three years, who 10 years ago never thought they’d get on the ice and have come to terms with what hockey is and have found the joy in the game and have gotten past all the bullshit that’s attached to that culture … I would say that in the Exclaim! Cup, the Zed Division, that’s where you find the true celebration of the game.”

And, of course, it is about more than just hockey. The entire tournament is a food drive (fans and players are asked to bring a non-perishable food item) and a fundraiser for Artscan Circle, a group that links creative artists with at-risk aboriginal youth. In the end, it’s also about the music: every night of the tournament (April 13-15), players jam onstage at the Hockey Hootenany at Lee’s Palace as part of their required artistic contribution.

“It’s about community,” Stroumboulopoulos says. “You walk into the rink on that weekend with your bag, you know, there’s a chip truck outside, there’s a band playing, you can buy t-shirts, and there are fans, there are kids running around, you get the sense of an event. And you realize that it is probably the most fun you’re going to have playing in a tournament of this scale,” he says. “I get a real sense of what a fun journey this weekend is. And when the play stops, the music starts.”

Everyone goes out of their way to emphasize that the Exclaim! Hockey Summit of the Arts is about fun and punishes the brand of game that Don Cherry advocates. But in his book, The Best Game You Can Name (McClelland & Stewart, $34.99), writer, musician and Morningstar defenceman Dave Bidini shows a more competitive side of the tournament:

“I dug my shoulder into Ponytail’s chin, and he reacted with a butt-end to the ribs, which I answered with a groovy slash down his inner calf. A snug headlock gave way to a rib-rattling elbow, and another butt-end was traded with a forearm shiver until we were squishing gloves in each other’s faces, our nrrrghs! and ohhhgnnns! and grrrrrrss! stifled by the hot sweaty lather.”

In that spirit, Bidini wasn’t above giving a little verbal face-wash to an opposing team, The Nighmares, during an interview with Eye Weekly:

“They’ve got the four Dean brothers, and a couple of them are really good, but they kind of don’t try. They’re cherry pickers. They hang out at the red line — once they get the puck past the red line, they’ve got like 7,000 moves, but they don’t dig. So that team walks around and carries itself a little better than they actually are. There’s some trash talk for ya.”

Need Bidini fear retaliation on the ice? “Actually, we’re not in their division,” he says. EK






Originally published in Eye Weekly April 13, 2006.